What the River Says


Dear Friends,

I’ve just returned from a week at the Fishtrap Writers Gathering on the shores of Wallowa Lake outside Joseph, Oregon. I’m too wound up to sleep, even though it’s 11 pm, and my husband John and I have just driven for nine hours in 90 degree temperatures with our dog, Fox, wrapped in wet towels, ice packs tucked under his belly to keep him cool.

The theme at Fishtrap this year was “Breaking Trail: Off the Beaten Path” and that’s exactly what it felt like, not just because of the long drive to Joseph and back, but for the rich discussions, inspiring readings by faculty and students, and, of course, the daily workshops.

I taught a workshop called “Poetry of Practice, Poetry of Witness” using some of our contemplative and writing practices from The Pen and the Bell. Each morning we’d gather in the living room of my 1950s era cabin, I’d ring the bell, and we’d sit together in silence before beginning our writing practice. Later, we did walking meditation together, ending up perched on logs and rocks along the river to continue our writing practice, the rush of the river a counterpoint to our words.


At the end of the week, we gathered one last time on the deck behind my cabin to share our writing.  I listened intently as each participant shared his or her words, describing the taste of a strawberry or a reflection it evoked—living close to the California strawberry fields, where the workers suffered health issues due to the pesticide use—or the loss of a mother who’d never been fully mourned, or the challenges of caregiving a spouse or father with dementia.

As each shared his or her words, I was struck by how many had, indeed, “broken trail” this week and how essential it is that we have opportunities to come together to support each other in this challenging work.

After packing up on Sunday, I walked down to the river to say farewell and was reminded of a favorite poem by William Stafford: “Ask Me.” Serendipitously, when we gathered in the lodge for the final closing, Ann Powers, the executive director of Fishtrap, announced that because 2014 is the William Stafford Centennial, the theme for next year will be “What the River Says,” from the last line in “Ask Me”: “What the river says, that is what I say.”

Kim Stafford, William Stafford’s son, who’s on the faculty and advisory board and was a co-founder of Fishtrap, told a beautiful story about that poem: A literary group was meeting in a Portland library to discuss plans for an event to honor Stafford’s work; this was a library where many homeless people spend their days. Kim recounted how one had asked what they were doing there, and when he mentioned William Stafford, the homeless person said, “Ask Me.” He knew the poem and proceeded to recite the first lines of it. This reminder of the power of words to build community seemed the perfect closing to our week together.

In the spirit of Fishtrap, I encourage you to find a group in your community that supports writing—and find out how you can help support them. Or consider attending Fishtrap next year or a writing conference in your community.  For a good list, check the Poets & Writers Guide to Writing Conferences.

 In the meantime, visit your local river and listen carefully to what it has to say, then write a poem in which the river speaks. If you don’t have a river nearby, remember a time you were in the presence of water and allow that water to whisper in your ear.

With gratitude to Fishtrap and my students this week,

2 thoughts on “What the River Says

  1. Thank you for a beautiful week, Holly. The mindfulness will stick with me for a long time. And I got some good poems, too!

    • I’m delighted to hear from you, Sue! It was a wonderful week–and a pleasure to meet you and the rest of our workshop group. Glad you got some good poems–hope you might post one here sometime–especially if you wrote about that amazing river. :>